Happy 25th Anniversary to Liz Phair’s debut album Exile in Guyville, originally released June 22, 1993.
There is something very special, something inimitable about the confidence of a 26-year old woman, posing topless in a photo booth, responding to one of the most well-regarded records of all time with her debut (double) album. That kind of hubris begs for a reaction. But it’s hard to say if anyone could have anticipated the impact Liz Phair’s debut album Exile in Guyville had on the indie rock scene.
Phair later explained Guyville as a riff on the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main St. A consistently transgressive performer, the gleeful skewering of societal expectations became a hallmark for Phair. Her attitude towards sex, feminism, and capitalist urges were solidly progressive, but rarely political. She wasn’t trying to fix the system, but instead preferred to critique from outside.
Recorded with Brad Wood in his Wicker Park, Chicago studio, Guyville was released by Matador Records in June 1993. Gerald Cosloy, co-President of Matador received a Girly-Sound tape, and instantly recognized Phair’s appeal. Along with engineer Casey Rice, the trio layered Phair’s sparse guitar over plain production to create a perfect distillation of ‘90s rock.
Within the first moments of Guyville, Phair builds herself up as much larger than her physical self. This persona, one where she is “standing six feet one, instead of five feet two,” is an apt analogy for her confidence and candor throughout the album. She won’t be limited by anything, from stature to vocal range. On “6’1”,” Phair’s guitar playing brings to mind Kim Gordon, hacking away until her strike smooths into a strum.
“Never Said” and “Fuck and Run” are pop jams, polished up from their original Girly-Sound state. “Never Said” is scant with words, a protest against seemingly wrongful accusations. It’s fun and easy with full production, the accompanying music video earning a spot in MTV’s rotation. One of the least offending songs on the album, it’s catchy, but not nearly as catchy as the more explicit “Fuck and Run.” The surprising turn it takes when Phair sings, “fuck and run,” letting it hang in the air before, “even when I was 12,” is the kind of punchy vulgarity that hit hard in the pearl-clutching, “Just Say No” years of the early ‘90s.
“Divorce Song” is a ballad for an oncoming break-up. The mundane and universal arguments that make up most relationships are echoed by languid drumming and soft-wristed tambourine. It’s upbeat—sunny despite the subject matter. But Phair is far from one-note. “Canary” and “Shatter” are an exploration of darker places. “Shatter” has a winding start, and after two minutes, Phair finally begins to sing about falling hard for someone. In the dawdling build-up, you can feel Phair searching for courage, a rare moment of vulnerability.
“Flower” is the hyper-sexual and breathless objectification of Phair’s lover (or lover-to-be). It’s alarming in its candor, introducing the world to the phrase “blowjob queen.” The song is droll, Phair rambling on with obsessive intent. It leads into “Johnny Sunshine,” a charging rock song, violent and angry. Phair takes her repetition, listing “Johnny”’s crimes as a backdrop for her cooing, “you left me nothing.”
Several tracks from the album would become standalone hits, but few left a big impression on the charts. Phair’s public profile as an indie rock goddess eclipsed her music at times, an effect almost antithetical to Phair in real life, often plagued by bouts of self-doubt and stage fright. Despite her insecurities, Phair would not hesitate to capitalize on her fame, and deftly played the publicity machine for years after, much to the distaste of several an angry rocker dude.
Exile in Guyville was a critical darling in 1993. It was the number one album on end of the year polls in both Spin and The Village Voice. Phair was painted as an indie messiah, a star steeped in sex and rock & roll, arriving to save the art form. But as the years passed, the hype began to fade into charmed nostalgia, or worse, regret. “It's still a little embarrassing to remember how bowled over we all were,” Robert Christgau lamented in a 1998 Village Voice piece.
Phair, though prominent around the same time, stayed on the periphery of Chicago’s indie rock scene. Plenty of anecdotal accounts will rush to explain why Phair’s success ostracized her, while other indie-to-mainstreams acts of the early ‘90s skated by unscathed. But one can safely assume it had a lot to do with gender and very little to do with talent.
Much would be written about Guyville around the release and the following years. Phair was lauded as groundbreaking, her style celebrated. Following albums were all fairly well-received (Phair even saw mainstream pop success in her 2003 single, “Why Can’t I?”). But nothing else could compare to the bold songwriting and tight production of Exile in Guyville. 25 years later, Guyville still feels like a real place, sounding timeless and telling stories that still need to be told today.